Video Thumbnails: What Are They and How to Make Them
You’ve spent hours—maybe even days—creating your video.
Then you edited, wrote descriptions, social media updates, and all the other good things to make it reach as many people as possible.
All you really want to do is click ‘Publish’ and let the magic happen, but there’s a problem: your video thumbnail isn’t ready yet.
And while you know you could technically just leave it to the internet to select a frame from your video and hope for the best, you already know it’s not your best foot forward.
In fact, YouTube said that 90% of the best-performing videos on their platform have custom thumbnails. It’s safe to assume you want to increase your chances to be one of them!
In this guide, we’ll show you exactly how to make video thumbnails that result in views, comments, shares and, most importantly, results for your channel and your business.
A video thumbnail is a still image that represents your video. It’s what your potential viewers will see on various platforms, including YouTube and Facebook, and decide whether to watch your video based on it.
Here are some examples from Sunny Lenarduzzi’s channel:
A carefully thought-out thumbnail won’t just entice people to click through to your video.
It will also:
- Help viewers understand if the video they’re about to watch aligns with the goal they’re looking to achieve
- Provide context on the topic, such as its depth or tone
- Retain viewers longer, both in the video they’re watching and on your channel or profile
- Entice people to share the video within their networks
Video thumbnails are like movie billboards or book covers in a bookstore’s window display.
Video thumbnails are like movie billboards or book covers in a bookstore’s window display.
They have a difficult task of not only drawing the eyes but encouraging action (click-throughs) and matching viewer’s expectations.
This is why it’s important to note that custom-made video thumbnails are the key to success. By default, all video and social platforms will recommend a randomly selected snapshot from your video.
A random freeze-frame from your video won’t work. These images are usually blurry, dull, or a poor representation of what the video is actually about.
Customized video thumbnails offer so many opportunities to stand out that it would be silly not to make the most out of them.
The obvious answer is the one we’ve already mentioned: your video thumbnail is what makes a viewer click on your video or someone else’s. Simple enough, right?
The impact of a video thumbnail goes deeper than that.
Thumbnails help YouTube decide how to rank your video
Video thumbnails on their own have nothing to do with what YouTube does with your video.
What your viewers do once they click through, however, is hugely important.
Here’s how it works.
YouTube can push your video in front of viewers in a few places:
- YouTube’s search ranking system: the results shown when someone uses YouTube’s search bar
- Video page recommendation system: videos listed on the right-hand side of a video
- YouTube homepage for each logged in user: the first screen people see when they open YouTube.com or the YouTube app
All of these are driven both by how the user in question has interacted with your videos (if at all), and how others have interacted with your videos. Here’s where video thumbnails come in.
An attractive and realistic video thumbnail will entice people to click through, watch the video, keep watching videos from the same creator, and maybe even subscribe. A video thumbnail that acts as click-bait and doesn’t deliver on its promise of what’s in the video will make viewers frustrated. They may thumbs-down the video, leave it after a couple of seconds to search for a different one, or even leave the platform altogether. YouTube keeps track of this behavior and if they notice your videos repel viewers, they will recommend it less in all three places listed above.
Videos can rank on Google just like blog posts
If you play things right, your videos can make an impact outside of their original home. Search results on Google show a lot more than just text in most scenarios. This is where your video thumbnails can help you stand out and earn clicks directly in search results.
For example, if you search for cooking tips and recipes, you’re probably expecting to see what the food and the process look like. If you want a great lasagna recipe and search for it on Google, videos will show up as a result quite high on the page. Which one would you click on?
It’s important to note here that the first result you see on this screenshot isn’t a YouTube result—it’s a website with a video embedded on it. The thumbnail shown is the one selected inside the embedded video player. That’s how impactful video thumbnails are wherever your potential viewer hangs out!
Video thumbnails are the epitome of brand awareness
Building up to the point where people recognize you by default is a long road. But it’s worth it.
Imagine this: people know it’s you—not your competitor—when they see your Instagram post, your tagline, even products out in the world… And your video thumbnails, even though they’re surrounded by dozens of others.
Brand awareness isn’t just being known for what you do; it’s also profitable. Presenting the brand consistently results in an average revenue increase of 23%. The consistency behind your video thumbnails—colors, styles, logo, overlays, and more—will pay off in the long run.
Salma Jafri’s channel is a perfect example of thumbnail consistency:
If Netflix is doing it, it’s not to be messed around with
You know the artwork you see for the recommendations of shows and movies in your Netflix account? They’re not the way they are by accident.
In fact, Netflix is the master of a truly personalized recommendation system. This is something they’re able to do thanks to the unimaginable amount of data they have about their viewers’ behaviors.
Do you prefer sitcoms, or are you more into thrillers and mind-bending shows? Are there specific actors you like? Any common themes between the titles you watch?
In their Artwork Personalization article, Netflix showed us a peek into their customization system along with examples of personalized thumbnails. As they said, these variations of Stranger Things artwork each receive over 5% of impressions from their personalization algorithm:
In other words, you’re probably more likely to see the middle-right thumbnail if you’re into lighter-themed shows, and the bottom-right one if you’ve watched dark shows.
Yes, YouTube doesn’t quite let you experiment with thumbnails this way (yet!), but remember that Netflix literally depends on their viewer’s interest in what the platform has to offer. They make it happen with thumbnails.
Your video thumbnail should accomplish the following goals:
- Get the viewer to click through to your video
- Accurately represent the core of the video, its end result
- Look great on any device and screen size
- Represent your branding and visual identity
Here are the elements of a video thumbnail that achieves all of the above (and more).
Clear, vibrant, high-quality image
Let’s get one thing out of the way: the image on your thumbnail must be clear, crisp, and of the highest quality you can achieve. Even if you get all the other parts right, you simply can’t get away with a dark, blurry, or grainy image.
Your thumbnail must convey the key information about the video, so make sure to put the main object or person front and center. Here’s an example from the technology topic recommendations from YouTube’s homepage. Notice the impact that logos and pictures of devices make on these thumbnails:
Beyond this key rule, consider the following tips that will make your thumbnail strong and vibrant:
- Use contrasting and complementary colors to stand out
- Adjust the contrast and brightness of your image to achieve crispness
- Use whitespace or bright, monochromatic backgrounds for clarity
- Apply the rule of thirds to place important subjects at main points of interest
Of course, you don’t necessarily need to implement all of the listed suggestions, but use them as a guide to play around with the images you’re using.
Video thumbnail text
Text on your video thumbnails can make a huge difference. It can add extra context and emphasize a point.
Thumbnail text is the perfect way to include a detail about a video that didn’t fit into your video title. HubSpot recommends limiting YouTube video titles to 60 characters to keep it from getting cut off in results pages, so thumbnail gives you that extra space.
When adding text to your video thumbnail, keep in mind the following best practices:
- Avoid misrepresenting the point of the video with thumbnail text (if you add ‘Shocking!’ but nothing is actually shocking, you’ll annoy your viewers)
- Use bold, strong fonts that are easy to read on all screen sizes
- Make sure you’re using text colors that are easy to differentiate from the image colors
- Use as little text as you can, not more than a few words
- Consider thumbnail areas that will be covered, such as the bottom right corner with video length on YouTube
Check out this thumbnail from Amy Landino’s video and note how she included ‘No more excuses’ on the image even though that’s not part of video’s title:
The correct size for your video thumbnail
The image of your custom video thumbnail should be in the highest resolution possible. Why? Because your video might be viewed on a device of any size—including TV.
Furthermore, even though thumbnails usually appear quite small in search results and in recommendations, keep in mind that your thumbnail will also appear as a full-size preview image when embedded on a page.
Here’s one example of this from Trena Little’s blog:
In other words: don’t dismiss the resolution just because thumbnails are mostly displayed small!
YouTube’s official directions for custom video thumbnail specifications are:
- Resolution: 1280×720 (with minimum width of 640 pixels)
- Image formats: .JPG, .GIF, .BMP, or .PNG
- File size: under 2MB
- Aspect ratio: 16:9
Branding your thumbnails
As we mentioned earlier, your thumbnails are a perfect way to achieve consistency in places such as your YouTube channel or the video section of your Facebook page. With a consistent style, people who have seen your brand elements in the past will easily notice them on a crowded screen. They’ll know it’s you even before they see your name.
What are some elements that can help you brand your thumbnails and achieve this type of consistency? Consider the following:
- Set of fonts
- Color scheme
- Color overlays
- Placement of text, emojis, faces
- Text capitalization
Check out the consistent color scheme, placement, and style on Courtney Chaal’s videos:
A human face that builds an emotional connection
As you probably noticed, many video thumbnails feature a human face, often with an intense expression and emphasizing emotions. This is no surprise, and it’s important to consider this if it makes sense for the topics you cover and the industry you’re in.
Topics like makeup and skincare will naturally feature close-up images of faces, but the benefit goes deeper than showing off a makeup look and can be implemented across many topic categories.
Even recipe videos feature faces and emotions:
Many of us associate food with happiness, so is it a surprise that these thumbnails show happy people?
Folks at Wistia broke down a scientific study that essentially proves that as humans, we’re hard-wired to respond to faces—literally from our birth. We can use this scientific insight in video thumbnails in three ways:
- Drive attention: in a sea of faceless thumbnails, people will naturally be driven to any that feature a face
- Build trust: we develop a preference for objects and faces that we’ve been exposed to repeatedly
- Make people feel something: faces reveal emotional cues and help associate positive emotions with your brand
By showing faces—especially your face, if you’re the common denominator of your videos—will help you build a personal connection with your viewers.
Ready to include the above tips into your video thumbnails? Here are five easy steps to do so.
Step 1: Take still images or pose in your video
The first thing you need is the image you’ll base your thumbnail on!
There are two ways to get it:
- During filming, record a few 5-second long steady frames that you can later screenshot, or
- Take a photo separately
If you go with the first option, make sure you record several options so you can choose the best one. When you find the one you’re happy with, expand it on your computer screen as much as you can while it’s still crisp and high-quality, and take a screenshot of it.
If you go with the second option, you can use the self-timer on your smartphone/camera or a remote shutter to snap a photo of yourself remotely (in case you don’t have anyone to take it for you).
Step 2: Choose your tool
You now need a tool that you’ll use to customize your thumbnail.
We recommend Canva, a free tool with a pre-set YouTube thumbnail format and dozens of thumbnail templates you can use right away.
After you select your template on the left-hand side, you’ll be able to edit any element of that template.
Replace the template image with the one you created in the first step and type in your thumbnail text.
Step 3: Adjust colors and add additional elements
As you click on each of the elements in your editor, you’ll see all the options you have for it.
Clicking on the image will allow you to change things like brightness, saturation, and contrast, add filters, flip the image, and more.
Clicking on text will enable you to change the font, color, alignment, spacing, and size. You can also change the color and transparency of any blocks of color.
From the Elements tab on the left, you can also add things like arrows, lines, and other shapes.
Step 4: Test on all sizes
By using the size picker in the bottom right corner in Canva, you can see what your video thumbnail will look like small, such as on the YouTube homepage or the mobile app.
Does it still look as good as it did when it was at full-size? Check if any text needs to be enlarged or shortened and if your image still speaks the way you want it to. Make any necessary changes and test again.
Then, export and run with it! You can now upload your thumbnail to your YouTube and Facebook videos, as well as to platforms like Wistia or Vimeo.
What’s Keeping You From Creating Superb Video Thumbnails?
You have everything you need to give your videos the boost they need to impact your ideal viewers. With the tips and tools we covered, you can create video thumbnails that draw attention, evoke emotion, spark curiosity, and keep the viewers looking for more. Most importantly, you can achieve all that no matter which device they’re watching on!
To create engaging videos that will easily retain the attention your thumbnails earned you, create your free Wave.video account and make the most out of our library of templates, video clips, sounds, and branding options.